The Caspian Monitor in Central Asia

The Caspian monitor (Varanus griseus caspius) in aggressive pose – scaring possible enemies

If you will try to look for the global assessment of Desert Monitor (Varanus griseus) in IUCN Red List, you will not find this species, although many other species from this abundant genus (more than 70 species belonging to one genus – Varanus) have been already assessed. This widely distributed species, inhabiting deserts of North Africa, Central Asia and South Asia, is currently split into three subspecies by their geographic areas. The grey monitor (V.g. griseus) occurs in African deserts. The Indian desert monitor (V.g. konieczhnyi) is mainly distributed in deserts of Pakistan and north-west India. The Caspian monitor (V.g. caspius) inhabits deserts of Central Asia and neighboring southern countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and western Pakistan. In countries of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, it is included in the national Red Books as rare species with declining range and abundances.  

The Desert or Caspian monitor is the largest lizard in Northern Eurasia: the length of adult specimens from the tip of muzzle to the tip of the tail can reach 150 cm! The Caspian monitor is usually closely associated with large colonies of gerbils (Rhombomys opimus). In its complex burrows monitors find shelters, and the rodents themselves often make up the basis food diet of this predatory reptile. From shelters in search of food, the monitor can go up to 1 km or more. In case of danger, this large lizard may briefly run at speeds up to 120 m per minute. In search of bird nests, monitors, especially young ones, cleverly climb trees and shrubs.

Caspian monitor in typical habitat in the Kyzylkum desert

Female-monitor lays up to 20 or more eggs in deep burrows with relatively high humidity. When young lizards just hatched, they are about 25 cm long. The known life span of a monitor lizard is up to 17 years. Protecting from enemies (for example, when people trying to pick them up) the monitor lizard can bite quite a bit. Probably, their saliva contains anticoagulants, as wounds inflicted them bleed for a long time.

In 2012, the herpetologist from the Institute of Zoology in Almaty (Kazakhstan), Dr. Marina Chirikova received a grant from the Rufford Foundation (The Rufford Small Grants Foundation – www.ruffordsmallgrants.org ) for the implementation of project: “Attention! Grey monitor lizard! ”- aimed at studying and protection of this species. As a consultant to this species, I could take part in the expedition to the northern Kyzylkum desert – the main region of the habitat of the monitor lizard in Kazakhstan.

Our expedition began in May from the Shardara regional center, located on the Syr-Darya River near borders with Uzbekistan. From local truck drivers we knew that most recently on a dirt road going to the Bimirza village, they saw several monitors, crushed by cars, and explained how to get there. After driving on this road about 50 km our expedition discovered three monitor lizards, recently roadkill under wheels of trucks. These were large adult specimens, each is more than a meter long. We stopped, fixed coordinates of locations, described the terrain, photo-graphed dead animals, took tissue samples – pieces of the tail, phalanges of the fingers … Perhaps in the future will find partners for genetic analysis of our samples, and on thin sections of tubular bones will determine the age of dead reptiles … Definitely, we were unpleasantly amazed to see in the first day three dead monitor lizards, which are rare and formally protected in Kazakhstan! We were surprised to find all these lizards on dirt, sandy road, where cars moving with low speed. Why so many dead reptiles? We drove up to the camp of livestock breeders, began to communicate with local residents and found out that often the monitors are crushed by cars on purpose. Many people, as it turned out, traditionally believe in prejudice, believing that this large lizard can suck goats and sheep milk, brings misfortune, and if he runs between a man’s legs, then this person will remain childless… All these circumstances cause persecution of the monitor lizard by people.

Monitors often move along dirt roads, probably here they find more prey or scavenging on small roadkill animals. One such “hunter” or “scavenger” walked towards our car. When he spotted us, he turned and ran the other way. But he did not guess to move from the road and go into the sandy dunes. When the distance to the car catching up to him is reduced up to 10 meters, the lizard turned to our side and took the aggressive pose, maximally swelling and hissing, threatening large enemy…

Exactly so – face to face – fearless monitor lizards for hundred thousand years met their enemies – four-legged and feathered predators. And often the enemy retreated, not daring to attack on a formidable dinosaur armed with sharp teeth. However, against a man driving a car such a success tactic does not “work”, especially if this man since childhood does not like and is afraid of the “horrible” lizard. That’s the main reason why these rare animals are threatened: one hand, hostility to them by the local population, on another hand, this is a behavior stereotype of monitor lizard… Of course, small monitors are hunted by many desert predators, like any lizard. But large adult monitors do not have enemies except for man.

The most vivid impression of this expedition again was related to the negative impact of man, although this time it ended well … Near the northern border of the monitor lizard’ habitats, which almost coincides with the border of Kyzylkum sands, we met with a group of zoologists from Kyzylorda anti-plague station. Zoologists told that they usually see this large lizard 5-6 times per season. But this time, they found the monitor recently in an old, dry well, located at the abandoned camp of livestock breeders. Our expedition went to the mentioned place and found still an alive monitor in a narrow well with a diameter of two meters and a depth of about 4 m.

It took some time to save the monitor, because he made several holes inside and did not indent to communicate with “scaring” people. However, we found ways how to capture him and take out from the well, where this lizard could die after while without food. We watered the saved monitor lizard – poured into it one and a half cup of water, because the animal was dehydrated. However, the monitor id not look very exhausted: in the well, we found the remains of a hare – a skin and a skull. Apparently, hare fell into the well and became the food of the monitor lizard. Obviously, the monitor fed up by falling down bugs, lizards and other small animals … It was a really large specimen – a female, 126 cm long. According to literature, maximal sizes of monitor lizards in Kazakhstan reach 130 cm, in Uzbekistan – 150 cm. However, local people said that they observed larger specimens.

We released the saved lizard away from the dry well, so that this monitor does not fall there again. By the way, after sitting half-hours in a bag and having been in the hands during the measurement process, the monitor calmed down, his aggressiveness greatly diminished, and before liberation, he thanked us with a good photo-session. We wished her reproductive success in the continuation of the ancient line of this unique lizards, still inhabiting deserts …

During the expedition to Kyzylkum, in addition to the monitor lizard, we found other species such as a green toad, two species of geckos, three species of toad-agamas, steppe agama and Central Asian tortoise. All these animals, even small turtles, serve as potential food of the monitor lizard.

According to preliminary assessment, in southern Kazakhstan the remained stable population of Caspian monitor accounts, at least, several thousand individuals. Key species habitats are located in the southern part of northern Kyzylkum desert near borders with Uzbekistan. The main causes of the population decline are the death of monitor lizards under the wheels of cars on numerous dirt roads, covered Kyzylkum by dense network.

Obviously, there is a need to preserve the remained habitats of this rare and vulnerable animal, increasing protected area network in the Kyzylkum desert. There is a need also in a public awareness campaign that to change the attitude of the local people to desert animals.  Basing on collected materials and photographs, taken during expedition, we printed a colorful poster and pocket calendars with a portraits of monitor-lizards and disseminated them in schools.

The portrait of the Caspian Monitor

More information about the project “Attention! Caspian monitor lizard! ” can be found on the website telling about Herpetofauna of Kazakhstan, created by colleagues from Almaty. Naturally, in one year it is impossible to solve all problems associated with the protection of the Caspian monitor. Therefore, we continue to work on study and conservation of desert wildlife in Central Asia. We hope to achieve the good results in the protection of desert wildlife and this unique lizard through cooperation with national authorities and local people.

Deserts of Kazakhstan

Ustyurt Desert Plateau

Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world. Its area is about 2.72 million square kilometers, and the total length of the borders is over 13 thousand kilometers. Besides, it is the second largest state on the planet, which is located immediately in two parts of the world (the border between Europe and Asia passes through Kazakhstan). The large area of ​​the country with various climatic conditions and relief generally determines the diversity of its landscapes and natural complexes. The relief of Kazakhstan is characterized by great contrast: the lowest point of the country is located on the Caspian coast (the bottom of Karagiye depression, which is 132 meters below sea level), and the highest point almost reaches 7 thousand meters (Khan Tengri peak in the south-east of the country).

“Solonchak” or salt-flat desert in the Kaplankyr Valley

The climate of Kazakhstan is generally moderate-continental and quite arid. In summer, heat waves are often observed here, and in winter it is cold (up to -40° C). In early spring, climatic contrasts in Kazakhstan are especially noticeable: when snowstorms are still raging in the north of the country, almonds and apricots are already blooming in the south.

Deserts and semi-deserts occupy almost half of Kazakhstan. They stretch almost a continuous strip from the coast of the Caspian Sea to the mountain ranges of the eastern part of the country. Within Kazakhstan, there are presented deserts of various types, including rock, sandy, gravel, “solonchak” or salt flat and clay deserts. Deserts provide specific natural habitats for many plant and animal species, including rare and threatened. The deserts of Kazakhstan belong to the type of Central Asian northern cold deserts, which are designated by the WWF as one of the 200 ecoregions in the world.

Desert with cliffs of Ustyurt Plateau and rare vegetation

It is generally accepted that desert biodiversity is very poor, since many living organisms have a hard time surviving in extreme conditions with a lack of moisture and extreme temperature fluctuations in day and night time. However, many species of animals and plants have adapted well to life in such conditions. Among them are many specialized species and forms. Very few amphibians (for example, green toad) have adapted to life in the desert, but reptiles – lizards, snakes and tortoises – are perfectly adapted specifically to harsh desert conditions.

It would seem that the desert is an environment unsuitable for human life and wildlife here is not in danger. But this is not true! The northern deserts, like many other regions of the world, have suffered from the intensive development and penetration of people with technology even into their hidden corners. Many deserts hide mineral deposits in their bowels and they are actively developed by people for economic purposes. Development carries out with it the burden and destruction of fragile natural ecosystems, the declining of species and their habitats. Desert wildlife species are no exception. Many wildlife species are included in the IUCN Red Lists and national red books.​

Among the most famous species of animals – the inhabitants of the deserts of Kazakhstan, listed in the IUCN Red List and the Red Book of the Republic of Kazakhstan, there are such as the goitered gazelles Gazella subgutturosa, the Ustyurt urial Ovis vignei arcal, the onager Equus hemionus, the sand cat Felis margarita, the caracal Caracal caracal, the houbara bustard Chlamydotis maquenii, Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus, desert monitor Varanus griseus caspius, and many others.

In the deserts of Kazakhstan there are still many species that are not considered rare, but are clearly attractive for travel enthusiasts. You can see some of these animals below or on the link to our store:

The Persian Leopard in Kazakhstan: new observations

Landscapes of Ustyurt Biosphere Nature Reserve provide good conditions for surviving of wildlife, adapted to arid environment

New fact of Persian Leopard observation in Kazakhstan was confirmed in May 2020 due to camera-trap video taken in Ustyurt Biosphere Nature Reserve.   You can find here the short video about Leopard in the reserve:

The Leopard – Panthera pardus – is included on the IUCN international red list as a vulnerable species (VU) .  The Persian Leopard – P. p. saxicolor or P.p. ciscaucasica is a Central-Asian subspecies. It is even more rare and globally endangered (EN). The range of this species covers the Caucasus Mountains (eastern Turkey, southern Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia). It is also found in Iraq, northern Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Until recent, the Persian Leopard did not occur in Kazakhstan. It was known from southern Turkmenistan, mostly from Kopetdag and Badkhyz Mountains. Besides, it was found in southern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. But to the end of XX century, the leopard was almost extinct in both these countries. The distance from Kopetdag Nature Reserve in Turkmenistan to Usyurt Nature Reserve in Kazakhstan is 600 km, and from Badkhyz Nature Reserve to Usyurt Nature Reserve is around 1,000 km (976 km). Leopards needed to cross deserts and populated areas that to reach Kazakhstan. It is surprising that it could happen relatively recently – during last decades. 

First reports about findings and observation of Persian Leopard in Kazakhstan looked anecdotical. Time to time shepherds and people living in remote areas reported about observation of large spotted cat, which they called “kaplon” (the name of large cats, like, for example, cheetah). The leopard was not even included in the list of Kazakhstan fauna. However, in 2007 and 2015, the presence of leopard in Kazakhstan was confirmed by skins of two large cats. Shepherds shot the first leopard in the Mangystau region and showed its skin. Another leopard was captured in a trap set for wolves and also killed. More recently, during fall 2018, an alive leopard was fixed on a camera-trap set in the Ustyurt State Nature Reserve in the framework of the project for feeding scavengers (vultures), conducted with the support of the Rufford Foundation.

Cinereous vultures found scavenge. Photo by Mark Pestov

The leopard is not even officially included in the list of of the fauna of vertebrate animals in Kazakhstan.  Accordingly, this species is not listed in the  Red Book of Republic, which provides legal protection status for rare, vulnerable and endangered species. The last findings allow to make the necessary amendments in Kazakhstan that will provide both legislative and territorial protection of the leopard in the country.

Photo of leopard from camera-trap in Ustyurt Biosphere Nature Reserve

Not only leopard, but the presence of other interesting fauna was confirmed due to projects, organized last years, and camera-traps placed in the valleys of Ustyurt. Other interesting animals, found there, are the grey wolf, Central-Asian caracal, goitered gazelle and many others, adapted to severe conditions of life in arid environment.

Mr. Zhaskayrat Nurmukhambetov,  Deputy Director of the Ustyurt State Nature Reserve and coordinator of the project on feeding of scavengers can provide additional information about this finding.

Studies of fauna in remote corners of Central Asia should be continued and more likely that more secrets of wildlife adaptation and resilience will be discovered in the future.